First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
The Instagram account for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center surfaces a striking view of a volcanic eruption from June 12, 2009:
It’s the Sarychev volcano in Russia’s Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan, and the incredible view was captured during a “fortuitous orbit of the International Space Station.” More from NASA:
Sarychev Peak is one of the most active volcanoes in the Kuril Island chain and is located on the northwestern end of Matua Island. Prior to June 12, the last explosive eruption had occurred in 1989 with eruptions in 1986, 1976, 1954 and 1946 also producing lava flows. Commercial airline flights were diverted from the region to minimize the danger of engine failures from ash intake.
This detailed photograph is exciting to volcanologists because it captures several phenomena that occur during the earliest stages of an explosive volcanic eruption.
The main column is one of a series of plumes that rose above Matua Island (48.1 degrees north latitude and 153.2 degrees east longitude) on June 12. The plume appears to be a combination of brown ash and white steam. The vigorously rising plume gives the steam a bubble-like appearance; the surrounding atmosphere has been shoved up by the shock wave of the eruption. The smooth white cloud on top may be water condensation that resulted from rapid rising and cooling of the air mass above the ash column, and is probably a transient feature (the eruption plume is starting to punch through).
The structure also indicates that little to no shearing winds were present at the time to disrupt the plume. By contrast, a cloud of denser, gray ash—most probably a pyroclastic flow—appears to be hugging the ground, descending from the volcano summit. The rising eruption plume casts a shadow to the northwest of the island (bottom center). Brown ash at a lower altitude of the atmosphere spreads out above the ground at upper right. Low-level stratus clouds approach Matua Island from the east, wrapping around the lower slopes of the volcano. Only about 1.5 kilometers of the coastline of Matua Island (upper center) can be seen beneath the clouds and ash.
In other words: Damn.
An even more jaw-dropping view:
(See all Orbital Views here)
The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans
Nearly half of Americans would have trouble finding $400 to pay for an emergency. I’m one of them.
Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?
Why We Sleep Badly on Our First Night in a New Place
Is it because half our brain is staying up to keep watch?
When you check into a hotel room or stay with a friend, is your first night of sleep disturbed? Do you toss and turn, mind strangely alert, unable to shut down in the usual way? If so, you’re in good company. This phenomenon is called the first-night effect, and scientists have known about it for over 50 years. “Even when you look at young and healthy people without chronic sleep problems, 99 percent of the time they show this first-night effect—this weird half-awake, half-asleep state,” says Yuka Sasaki from Brown University.
Other animals can straddle the boundaries between sleeping and wakefulness. Whales, dolphins, and many birds can sleep with just one half of their brains at a time, while the other half stays awake and its corresponding eye stays open. In this way, a bottlenose dolphin can stay awake and alert for at least five days straight, and possibly many more.
The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s
Why do so many people continue to pursue doctorates?
If you’re a grad student, it’s best to read the latest report from the National Science Foundation with a large glass of single-malt whiskey in hand. Scratch that: The top-shelf whiskey is probably out of your budget. Well, Trader Joe’s “Two Buck Chuck” is good, too!
Liquid courage is a necessity when examining the data on Ph.D.s in the latest NSF report, “The Survey of Earned Doctorates,” which utilized figures from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The report finds that many newly minted Ph.D.s complete school after nearly 10 years of studies with significant debt and without the promise of a job. Yet few people seem to be paying attention to these findings; graduate programs are producing more Ph.D.s than ever before.
The Average 29-Year-Old
Forget media archetypes of older Millennials as college-educated singles living in cities. The typical 29-year-old is living with a partner in the suburbs—without a bachelor’s degree.
What is the typical life experience for an American on the verge of turning 30?
This is a hard question to answer, no matter who is asking. But it’s become especially difficult for an industry responsible with providing the answers: the national press. An irony of digital media is that the Internet distributes journalism, but it concentrates journalists. Jobs at media sites like The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, or Gawker are five-times more likely to be located in New York or Washington, D.C., than television-news jobs. The clustering force is only getting more centripetal: The share of reporting jobs in Los Angeles, NYC, and DC increased by 60 percent between 2004 and 2014.
It’s easy to imagine many downsides of this agglomeration, like the dissolution of local reporting, but a subtler risk is that well-educated journalists in these dense cities wind up with a skewed impression of the world, a “majority illusion” based on the extremely unrepresentative cross-section of the country that’s immediately around them. To be fair, being a reporter in Des Moines or rural Nebraska, while it provides a better view of Des Moines and rural Nebraska, doesn’t offer a universal window into the average experiences of all Americans, either. For that, one needs something else, like a national survey.
Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy
Is the British government’s response to a naming contest tyrannical? Or the very definition of the democratic process?
British democracy has survived all sorts of things: the unraveling of the British Empire, independence movements in Ireland and Scotland, Prime Minister’s Questions. But never before has it confronted Boaty McBoatface.
The boat, which is really a ship, acquired new significance this week, when a British official suggested he wouldn’t respect the results of an online government poll in which more than 124,000 people voted to christen the country’s new $300-million research vessel “Boaty McBoatface.” The name received three times more votes than the runner-up entry. The people of the Internet had spoken emphatically, and they’d spoken like a five-year-old.
Alas, Science Minister Jo Johnson was not amused. “The new royal research ship will be sailing into the world’s iciest waters to address global challenges that affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, including global warming, the melting of polar ice, and rising sea levels,” he reminded Boaty McBoatfacites. “That’s why we want a name that lasts longer than a social-media news cycle and reflects the serious nature of the science it will be doing.” (As my colleague David Graham has noted, it’s a bit rich to hear such sober talk from a government that has in the past named ships Buttercup and Cockchafer.)
How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm
A recently published paper explains how “concept creep” in the field of psychology has reshaped many aspects of modern society.
A mother leaves her son in the car while popping into a store at a strip mall. She is charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A high school senior complains to her Facebook friends about a teacher and is suspended for “cyberbullying.” Students at Wellesley start a petition calling for the removal of a statue of a man in his underwear, claiming that the art piece caused them emotional trauma. So many residents of Santa Monica, California, claim to need emotional support animals that the local farmer’s market warns against service dog fraud.
How did American culture arrive at these moments? A new research paper by Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers as useful a framework for understanding what’s going on as any I’ve seen. In “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology,” Haslam argues that concepts like abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction, and prejudice, “now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before,”expanded meanings that reflect “an ever-increasing sensitivity to harm.”
The Obama Doctrine
The U.S. president talks through his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world.
Friday, August 30, 2013, the day the feckless Barack Obama brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower—or, alternatively, the day the sagacious Barack Obama peered into the Middle Eastern abyss and stepped back from the consuming void—began with a thundering speech given on Obama’s behalf by his secretary of state, John Kerry, in Washington, D.C. The subject of Kerry’s uncharacteristically Churchillian remarks, delivered in the Treaty Room at the State Department, was the gassing of civilians by the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.
Prince the Immortal
The rock star, dead at 57, lived such a blazingly distinctive life as preparation for the day that has now arrived.
“I don’t wanna die / I’d rather dance my life away,” Prince sang on “1999,” a line that can’t help but be considered in light of the shocking news of his death at age 57. There were a few big themes in Prince’s songs, but his ongoing reckoning with mortality might explain everything else he did in his four-decade career. His work—his music, his visuals, his movies, his public comments, his business decisions—acknowledged the grimmest realities of existence and used them as inspiration for something joyful, transcendent, and weird. After reportedly struggling with epilepsy at a young age, he labored to build his own reality, one that disregarded most commonly recognized limits except for the most inescapable of them.
Scientists Have Discovered a 600-Mile Coral Reef
It’s at the mouth of the Amazon River.
Among the world’s rivers, the Amazon reigns with the heaviest crown.
It begins in Peru, less than 75 miles from the Pacific shore, among the tiny glacial streams that trickle through the Andes. Those creeks become a river, which joins a network of other capillaries draining more than 3 million square-miles of South American land—water from mountains, foothills, and the world’s largest rainforest uniting to form a monumental flow that thunders clear across the continent until it gushes into the Atlantic. When measured by discharge, it is the largest river in the world: Every day, one-fifth of all the water that flows from all Earth’s rivers into all Earth’s oceans does it here, as the Amazonian flume. Nutrients in the spill support oceanic algae blooms hundreds of miles from shore.
How Animals Think
A new look at what humans can learn from nonhuman minds
For 2,000 years, there was an intuitive, elegant, compelling picture of how the world worked. It was called “the ladder of nature.” In the canonical version, God was at the top, followed by angels, who were followed by humans. Then came the animals, starting with noble wild beasts and descending to domestic animals and insects. Human animals followed the scheme, too. Women ranked lower than men, and children were beneath them. The ladder of nature was a scientific picture, but it was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would have dominion over those lower down.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection delivered a serious blow to this conception. Natural selection is a blind historical process, stripped of moral hierarchy. A cockroach is just as well adapted to its environment as I am to mine. In fact, the bug may be better adapted—cockroaches have been around a lot longer than humans have, and may well survive after we are gone. But the very word evolution can imply a progression—New Agers talk about becoming “more evolved”—and in the 19th century, it was still common to translate evolutionary ideas into ladder-of-nature terms.